Legacy Of Hate: Boise's White Supremacist History — And Present

Oct 4, 2017

In the first part of our Legacy Of Hate series, we took you to north Idaho to look at the history of the Aryan Nations and the effects that still ripple through that community. The compound made north Idaho infamous, but statistics show that year after year, it’s Boise that has topped the list for the number of hate crimes — despite conventional wisdom. It turns out southern Idaho, too, has an unfavorable history that persists into the present.

It was a hot morning this July when Salam Bunyan walked up to The Goodness Land on Overland Road in Boise to find a crowd of people gathered around his restaurant.

“And I see many [police officers] outside and I told them, ‘Hi guys, I’m the owner of this place. What’s going on?’” says Bunyan.

Someone had drawn a swastika along with anti-refugee messages in chalk on the sidewalk outside his front door.

“When I see it, actually I’m scared for the first time. I’m sad because that’s happened in Boise. But in Boise, that’s my home. I’m sad because I see that in my home,” Bunyan says.

Boise has been home to Bunyan, his wife and their kids since 2008 when they fled violence in Iraq. He says he’s always felt safe here, until now. No one has been arrested in the case and the vandalism was just one of several acts of hate in Boise this year.

Video of The Goodness Land vandalism, courtesy Boise Police Department

Across town at the Anne Frank Memorial, workers begin sawing off the tops of large stone tablets which are etched with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They’re being replaced after several passages were destroyed in May after vandals spray-painted hate signs and words onto the stone.

Stone tablets at the Anne Frank Memorial are pitted after being vandalized with racist messages.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

"The tagging was racist in nature and it was strategically placed right where it talks about us all being members of the same human family,” says Dan Prinzing.

Prinzing is the Executive Director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, which built and houses the memorial. Every night for four nights, someone snuck into the memorial and spray painted messages of hate. Prinzing wonders how something like this could happen in Boise.

“Maybe we’ve become complacent. Maybe we thought the progress that we were seeing was going to carry us,” Prinzing says.

That progress is often considered to be the destruction of the Aryan Nations compound in North Idaho in 2001. But hate hasn’t been unique to the northern part of the state, despite conventional wisdom from those in the south. On a per capita basis, Coeur d’Alene ranked first among reported hate crimes since 1991, when records started being kept by the Idaho State Police.

But Boise topped the list in number of hate crimes reported more than 65% of the time in year-by-year data. And there were only three years when Boise wasn’t among the top three.

That doesn’t surprise Jill Gill, professor of history at Boise State University. She says there are plenty of historical instances of hate in southern Idaho, like a Ku Klux Klan parade in 1923.

“With floats and pyrotechnics and cross burnings and initiations that happened down in the fairgrounds here. It caused such a crowd that there were traffic jams for people that came out to watch this thing,” says Gill.

Racism has continued throughout Boise’s history. Gill says in the 1940s, a lot of African American soldiers were stationed around Gowen Field.

“The white population got a little nervous, because there were large numbers of young African American men walking around that they didn’t know and so acts of segregation and fear were also exacerbated during this time,” Gill says.

The same thing happened in the 1950s and ‘60s, when African American athletes were being recruited by Idaho universities.

And then there was River Street, Boise’s segregated neighborhood downtown. An African American family that managed to move out of the River Street area in the late 1950s found a cross burning on their new lawn in the North End. Others that moved out to the Bench got death threats. Gill says racism in local housing contracts was found all the way up to 1968 when the Fair Housing Act made it illegal.

Gill says Boise has a long history of hate, but the Aryan Nations in North Idaho got most of the press. That’s dangerous, she says, because for a lot of Idaho that became the face of racism instead of its more subtle forms.

“We don’t tend to look at the fact that housing and job discrimination were integral to Idaho’s history, just as much as it was in other places around the country,” says Gill.

A worker removes one of the stone tables that was defaced by vandalism at the Anne Frank Memorial.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

In the last six years, Boise has topped the list for the number of hate crimes five times. And this year, it’s well on its way to leading again with a series of events that appear to be motivated by hate against immigrants, the LGBTQ community and Jewish people at the Anne Frank Memorial. Boise Police declared the tagging there a hate crime and no one has been arrested.

BPD Detective Josiah Ransom is with the Violent Crimes Unit, which investigates hate crimes. He says there are special procedures when this type of crime happens and there’s a massive response by the city.

“There’s a lot of effort to put into that because we don’t tolerate that, we don’t want that to be what our city’s known for,” says Ransom.

He says a lot of manpower has gone into the Memorial case, from the investigation to extra patrols to stop future vandalism. He says this year’s crimes are “disgusting” but don’t reflect the city as a whole.

“Three incidents in a city of our size does not make us a racist city or anything like that. The vast majority of our citizens do not tolerate that, do not appreciate that mentality and are going to do whatever they can to stomp it out,” says Ransom.

And you can see the community response at the Anne Frank Memorial where flowers and signs appeared the week after the vandalism. Volunteers asked to stand vigil at night to protect the site. And so far, $67,000 has been raised to put in new tablets to replace the ones that were damaged.

Salam Bunyan leaves a basket of chalk outside his Goodness Land restaurant for patrons to write messages of support on the sidewalk.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

People also started writing words of support and drawing hearts and peace signs on the sidewalk outside The Goodness Land restaurant. The idea grew and now Salam Bunyan leaves a basket of chalk outside his door. Every night when he locks up, he stops and takes a picture with his phone of the new words of hope, not hate, that have appeared during the day while he’s been cooking.

“That’s the people in Boise, always great, always [helpful], always support anyone coming. Doesn’t matter what color, what religion, what language. The people will support anyone who wants to start a new life,” says Bynuan.

Bunyan says he and his customers are fighting the hate that’s kept Boise one of, if not the top city of hate in Idaho over the past two-and-a-half decades, with words and symbols of love drawn every day in chalk on the sidewalk.

Messages of hope written in chalk outside The Goodness Land restuarant.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2017 Boise State Public Radio